Talking a load of rubbish

It was Benjamin Franklin who said: “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”

Having just waved off three American friends who stopped over in London I’d have to disagree; It was a case of so much to see – so little time.

We walked for miles, sampled the sights, tapped into rich layers of history and enjoyed the cultural mish-mash that makes the city one of the most vibrant and exciting places on earth.

But beyond Franklin’s whimsy, I was also left to reflect on the embarrasssingly grubby, trash-strewn streets, parks and public places that we Londoners inhabit.

It has fallen to another American, the author Bill Bryson who has become president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, to remind us of what we have:

“Nowhere in the world is there a landscape more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in, more artfully worked, more visited and walked across and gazed upon than the countryside of England. It is a glorious achievement and much too lovely to trash.”

The Slad Valley, Gloucs, much-loved by author Laurie Lee

Shakespeare’s peerless prose described it as a “precious stone set in a silver sea”, but the vividly-imagined sceptred isle has now turned into a septic mess.

Tattered plastic bags cling to shrubs along the local riverbank, almost no bush is without its beer-tin ornaments – glinting cans of Zywiec favoured by Polish incomers and Tennents Extra for the harder core.

Discarded fast-food, along with wrappers, plastic forks and napkins are strewn around with careless abandon, often only a few yards from a rubbish bin.

Enforcement of exisiting by-laws about littering would be welcome. I can’t remember the last time a read a story in the local paper about someone being fined for dropping trash.

But it’s going to take more than than that. It’s about good manners and regard for the people around you, lessons – for my generation at least – which were drummed in at an early age.

It was interesting therefore to hear from one of our visiting friends about how Texas set about tackling its litterbugs.

Now I’d always thought that the slogan Don’t Mess With Texas was derived from its cussed, independent streak and a sense of inate superiority – a bit like Yorkshire folk here.

But no, it’s a trademark slogan of the state’s transport department introduced in the 1980s and targeted at 18-35-year-old males. 

The malaise here goes much wider than that narrow demographic. Riding the Tube, sitting amid drifts of throwaway free newspapers, sandwich cartons and coffee cups can be like sitting in a dumpster with wheels.

Where to start to turn back the tide? I suppose it begins with each and every one of us, though confronting a litterbug is likely to lead to a torrent of abuse, or worse.

Perhaps the best hope is that emerging digital tools can be a catalyst for on-the-ground social action. As a lone individual problems like this can seem overwhelming, but when people band together remarkable things can happen. Maybe we can yet restore some civic pride and once again make this a green and pleasant land.


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